CHILD OF DROUGHT
There’s a place in my memories that never really existed. Or it did, but it was the silver lining under the overhanging cloud. Better yet, it was the calm orange of the sky before a sand storm.
I was five when the 2000s drought began in earnest, impacting much of southern Australia and especially the Murray-Darling basin which feeds into Australia’s largest agricultural region. By 2003 it would be recognised for its severity, and eventually referred to as Australia’s worst drought in 1000 years. Living on a fruit farm just off the Darling River in Bourke NSW, my earliest memories hold nothing but the normality of drought. It wasn’t odd that my mother’s rose garden was always dry, or that every Sunday in church we prayed for rain. It was all I knew. I wasn’t sheltered from it – it was a harsh reality. I was just too young to understand the bigger picture, and see beyond the effects of a single summer.
Henry Lawson once wrote that “if you know Bourke, then you know Australia”. As someone who was born and spent their childhood there, it seems like a fair statement. But for most people Bourke is a small dot on a map, nine hours north-west of Sydney and too far from anywhere else to bother visiting. It’s the ‘Gateway to the Outback’, and the only reason it’s on the map at all is that it used to be an important trading town for wool on the Darling River. The old wharf is still there, with its three tiers down to the water, allowing for the changing river height. I honestly can’t remember if I ever saw it above the bottom level.
There’s many who wouldn’t think Bourke is a beautiful place. It’s dry and hot, and some city schools probably have more students than its entire population. But there’s something to be said about a place that’s so flat you can almost see the horizon curve away, and where there’s nothing between you and the sunset or the thunder storm rolling in over the red sunburnt plains. It’s a harsh and unrelenting place, but filled with moments of glorious beauty.
I both loved and hated how flat it was. During a storm it was amazing, an immersive lightning storm at every angle. But I was always excited when we went somewhere with mountains. The closest hill in Bourke was Mount Oxley, a sporadic divot in the landscape’s flatline. An anomaly we climbed every other year.
Funnily enough, by the time I moved somewhere with proper hills I found out the winding turns made me carsick.
The concept of permanency is one young children cannot seem to fully grasp. When their favourite toy disappears, it’s lost forever. But when they have something, it will always be theirs. Parents will always be there, so will their home. Change is a foreign notion.
In my mind, the farm would always be there, and be ours. It was only natural – we’d built it. Stone by stone, vine by vine, my Dad and Pa had pulled thousands of acres of fruit from the red dirt scrub. But it was all completed by the time I was born. Established as its own little universe. Our house was bordered by grapevines, and beyond those oranges, mandarins, watermelons, and countless others. It and the drought were all I knew. They existed side by side, waging a battle I didn’t realise we could lose.
My childhood is an endless summer, an infinite loop of bare feet burning on the red dirt and laughter as my siblings, cousins and I race the four-wheelers through the vines. Every year, a week or so before Christmas, all my cousins on my dad’s side – the Mansell Family – arrive on our farm. I’m the last of the elder lot, a string of eight kids born in six years who pair off perfectly in age and gender. Mum always says Sarah and I are like two peas in a pod, born five months apart and the exact same shade of blonde. Except, for our entire lives she’s always been a head taller than I.
Growing up on a farm your parents own is not exactly your average childhood. By the time I was nine I’d learnt to drive a four-wheel motorbike, a forklift and a go-cart. I’d add cars to the list but I couldn’t reach the pedals. Plus, I was so used to driving motorbikes that the left side of the car was never on the road. None of this was out of the ordinary. Being the youngest of four, my older brothers and sister had all done it before me, and were usually the ones to teach me.
By the end of summer my left thumb muscle is always bigger than my right from holding down the accelerator of dad’s motorbike. It’s the only one we can use without being told off – the others are technically for the fruit pickers, and they don’t really appreciate it when we use up all their fuel racing each other. Not that that stops us.
There’s a sticker below the handle-bars that we always laugh at. Apparently, you have to be over sixteen, wearing protective clothing – helmet, jacket, gloves – the whole shebang, and can’t have more than two passengers, to drive the bike. I learnt when I was seven, wearing swimmers and a pair of thongs. On average, we’ll have at least three or four people on the bike, depending on whether the dogs come too.
These are the things I remember, that my mind jumps to when I think of my life in Bourke. Perfect days I regret because I didn’t appreciate them enough. Because, even though I recognised there was something different about my dad, I didn’t know he had depression. Even though I knew there wasn’t a lot of water, which was obviously problematic for a fruit farm, I didn’t know we might lose it all. I didn’t know that while we were on a ‘two week holiday in Sydney’ the farm my family had built from scratch and nurtured over twenty odd years was being seized by the bank.
It’s interesting the way parent’s try to shield their children from difficult situations. I’ve always wondered if it’s an intentional choice, that explanation of the necessary plot points, negating the dark and contentious moments. They construct a barebones narrative that can be understood as a whole, and when this is accepted all further explanation ceases; the curtain falls, the audience moves on. Or, conversely, they believe not explaining at all will protect their child, pulling their innocence around them in such a way that can just cause harm. For innocence is not blind, and you cannot learn from pain if you don’t understand its cause.
There were three metal statues that stood outside my school by the time I was in year four. A kangaroo, emu, and an echidna fashioned from scrap bits of metal pulled out of the river bed. It was 2006, and due to the drought’s growing severity and government water restrictions, we were able to walk across the river bed, muddy water swirling around our legs as we fished for rusted treasure. I understood the basics – no water was bad, which was why dad and every other grown-up was stressed. But I didn’t know that he’d been fighting against the restrictions, and that further up the river beyond the weirs there was water. Or that the water we were allowed was less than half necessary to keep the irrigation functioning.
All I knew was that when the plastic dam was low we had a longer water-slide. How ironic it must have seemed to my parents when we questioned dad how low the water levels were, cheering when he said half, or even less.
When he stopped coming with us we just assumed he trusted us not to flip the motor bike on our way to the dam, or to make sure the younger ones didn’t swim out too deep. Now I just wonder if he couldn’t bear to drive up the levy bank and see how empty it really was.
There’s different kinds of loss. I struggle with my own because it was so sudden – a clean break some might call it, but I still suffer from the phantom limb. For everyone else in my family, my parents and Joel and Laura, the two eldest, at least, it must have felt like more of a festering wound, rotting away each year at a time. The eventual loss, while it must have been painful, might have even been bitter-sweet. Studies do show that when we feel emotional pain, the same areas of the brain, the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex, are triggered. Pain is pain, no matter the way it’s dealt. But the same accident can cause a plethora of different injuries. My parents saw it coming. They felt the pain, each day at a time, wrapping their mind around the eventual outcome. Whereas I was so used to the ache that I didn’t see the knife descending.
If you drive down Hungerford Road and see fields of cut down trees, at best you might think it a shame. I just think of Dad’s face the first time we went back. How his expression shuttered away. He was indignant, furious, but determined to move on. I’m sure he could still remember when he planted each of those trees, watching them grow over the years alongside his children. Seeing someone else come in who didn’t understand the land must have been heartbreaking.
For a long while I didn’t think I deserved to feel the loss of it all. I didn’t know everything that was going on. I was too young to feel the actual hardship, or recognise it for what it was. I can still barely wrap my mind around the scale of it all, and the legal proceedings about water restrictions that were made. But I felt the backlash, the sudden jolt into entirely different circumstances.
Moving to Sydney in 2007 felt like entering into an entirely different world. I felt aged, mature a thousandfold over the strange eleven-year-old's in my class. Existing in the sticky humidity of the Hawkesbury region so cut off from the Murray-Darling basin, they didn’t even know there was a drought.
We went back only once, to pack up the house. It’s strange how certain memories stick in your head. I can’t remember my parents ever explaining what had happened. The farm simply wasn’t ours anymore. But I can remember that my oldest brother, Joel, and his friend Tom were playing ‘Umbrella’ by Rhianna in our lounge room while Dad unbolted doors, removed stained-glass windows and said goodbye to the house he and Mum built together.
Whenever we’d had guests, Mum and Dad would always take them on a tour of the house, explaining where each item came from. The mud brick walls they made themselves. The thick hundred-year-old beams that ran beneath the tin roof. The worn timber stairs from an old hotel that mum and dad refused to flip to the fresh side. We'd hated it, my siblings and I, that looping monologue that hit replay every time a foot crossed the threshold. The red bricks from an old fire-station weren’t anything special, it was just our living room wall. But every stone holds a memory now, and we remember it as proudly as our parents did.
There’s someone else living in the room my sister and I shared, where our names are written neatly on the wall so everyone would know it was ours. But they won’t know that the scratches on the balcony are from our cat falling off and landing on the couch downstairs. Or that the marble stuck in the laundry room lock was because Daniel thought it would fit. Or that there’s a little sequin purse hidden on an out of sight ledge inside my built-in wardrobe, containing a letter saying how much I didn’t want to leave. I hid it for someone to find, but unless the house is demolished, I’ll probably be the only one to recover it. At the moment it is the Schrodinger’s Cat of time capsules. Neither lost nor found. No one wins.
It was almost 2009 when we moved for the second time, fleeing the heavy humidity of outer Sydney after only a year and a half, for the semi-familiar rural plains of Dubbo. Only then did I find out my dad had suffered depression. The worst was over, and I never really knew it had happened. But the pieces fell into place all the same. That sad little line in my old diary made sense. ‘Dad doesn’t laugh anymore’. It was like when I found out my mum had had an older sister who’d died as a teenager. There was a whole section of my past and my family that I hadn’t been clued into because it was too painful or difficult for them to explain. But now, years down the track, I believe I’d have liked a simple explanation as opposed to the uncertainty, the confusion when an old woman at my grandfather’s funeral looked at me and said I had Linda’s eyes.
My pain is my own. I dealt with the same circumstances in my own unique way, and suffered different losses. Being the youngest, I adapted, wrapped up in my confused indignation. But age was my friend, I adjusted and grew. One of my mother’s seedlings replanted again and again. The other’s felt the loss in different ways. Daniel, closest to me in age and my childhood nemesis and compatriot, bounced back in all ways but the one that truly counted, throwing his anger at God. Laura fled into the hill behind our house to escape going to a school whose size overwhelmed her.
Mum and Dad simply rebuilt, pulling together the remnants of their lives and starting again. Our 20 acres of land is filled with rockmelons and pumpkins, but it’s Pa’s domain. Dad doesn’t farm anymore, instead fuelling his stubborn perseverance into his paragliding business – despite breaking his back in a crash-landing three years ago. Throughout it all, Mum remains the steadfast rock in the eye of the storm.
It is hard when pain doesn’t leave a physical mark, a scar for me to add to my collection. Some proof that it happened – that I too felt the pain. Scars represent the immediacy, the tangibility of the pain for all to see. But while the brain registers emotional pain in the same way as physical, the body does not. There is no wound for me to watch heal, flesh knitting together into a line that will fade with time. Pain turning to memory, memory becoming story.
Instead I’m left unmarked, yet irrevocably grafted with experience. A child of drought, with nothing more than my memories and fading photographs to prove it.